Sach Pass: Not for the faint hearted

15th Jul 2014
Photo of Sach Pass: Not for the faint hearted 1/52 by Harsh Vardhan
Kalatop FRH
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Macroshot of flower
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Kalatop FRH
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Secluded HPTDC cottage
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An assortment of houses in a "compact" villag
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It was quite overcast that day
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The climb passed through a lovely field.
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The roads start losing tar
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Snowfall begins after Satrundi checkpost
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Beauty shots taken
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A layer of white added charm
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Beauty shot, from the behind
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We come nearer to the pass
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The temple, the shelter and the vehicle
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More vehicles parked near the pass
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We stayed at the top for a while
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Another beauty shot
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The road snaking down from the pass
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The clouds hung close to the road
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Streams overflowed near the road
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Blast! they were widening the roads
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Wonder how much snow Sach pass gets
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Crossing the Chenab into Lahaul
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Moving on towards Udaipur
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The gorge of Chandrabhaga is deep at points.
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Flowing streams, enroute
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There's no tar on this route
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Crossing over chandrabhaga
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Curious onlookers
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Freshly laid white paint over the mountains
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Pali inscription with Hindu deity, a first!
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Walking in the bylanes of Triloknath village
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Buddhist inscriptions lay next to shiva's ima
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Ridge beyond which the Miyar valley opens
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Miyar nallah
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Chimneys in all the houses are active now
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The golden rays strike a mountain
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Kiyang crossing over a bridge.
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A bridge over Miyar nallah
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The dirt track that runs along the Miyar
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My attempt at an HDR shot of the beautiful va
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The end of the road
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The colors before Sissu were amazing.
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These are the colors just before fall.
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Almost approaching Koksar
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The Rohtang tunnel work going on full swing
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At Marhi check post
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The view one is treated to, from Il Forno
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The quintessential view from Manali

A trip to Sach pass had been on the cards for a long time before it went on to become a reality. The first plan cropped up somewhere in 2010 but had to be dropped due to news of landslides all along the road to Killad from Udaipur; and so we opted to go to Chandertal instead. Finally in October 2011, we planned a short trip crossing Sach pass and visiting the Lower Lahaul valleys of Pangi and Miyar. The only logistical issue remained a wedding ceremony that had to be attended the night before our scheduled departure date, which obviously was worked out. The broad plan was to spend one night each at Chamba, Killad and Udaipur and two nights at Manali. Sach pass is not for the faint hearted for sure, especially those who plan to climb it from the Killad side, which is a far more treacherous climb as compared to the ascent from the Chamba side. A particular stretch on the Killad side, where I had to back Kiyang up an incline, really got my adrenaline pumping. The Pangi and Miyar valleys are among the few valleys left in Himachal which are motor-able and yet very less frequented by tourists. Needless to say, both are beautiful, Miyar more so because it is tucked away. The high points of the trip were our experience of the season’s first snowfall over Sach which caught us by surprise and a morning stroll in Miyar valley. The travellers: Aarti & HarshThe vehicle: Kiyang (Tata Safari 4x4)Guest Appearances: Sachin Gupta (bull_bola) & his cousin Himanshu. Day 1 (06.10.2011): Delhi - Khajjiar - Kalatop Forest Rest House (15 hours)

Day 2 (07.10.2011): Kalatop - Killad (13 hours)

Day 3 (08.10.2011): Killad - Udaipur - Triloknath temple - Udaipur (6 hours)

Day 4 (09.10.2011): Udaipur - Miyar valley - Udaipur - Manali (12 hours)

Day 5 (10.10.2011): Manali & Day 6 - Manali - Delhi

The late night Delhi traffic was dying and we managed to reach Murthal pretty quickly and I took the opportunity to change immediately into something more comfortable and appropriate. Aarti was all set to take the back seat and sleep while I drove the rest of the night. I had loaded some my kind of music and plugged into my earphones and a sweet night drive began. It was only when I reached Ambala did I realize that I had not planned the route towards Sach pass at all. The plan was indeed to reach Sach pass from Chamba, but I had no clue on the optimum route to be taken to reach Chamba. Not knowing on what to do, and with Aarti sleeping soundly in the back, I decided to take the Banur route towards Ropar and then instead of turning towards Manali, move straight towards Nangal. In hindsight, the ideal route would have been to move towards Pathankot and then head into the hills towards Chamba. It might have been a bit longer, but definitely would’ve taken us less time. By about 7 am I was completely zonked out. It had been more than 24 hours since I was awake, and that too after quite a tiring day at work and not to mention the wedding. I began to feel the strain of exhaustion in my eyes and I could feel them droop. With Aarti still dozing off soundly at the back, I had no other option but to stop and try my luck with the last cup of black coffee left in the thermos Aarti had gotten along, and a cigarette. Thankfully, Aarti woke up relatively fresh a while later to take on the wheels. She resumed the drive, after a brief discussion on the route further up. I slouched in the back of the car and slept like a log. It was only by 10:30 that I finally woke up and found Aarti driving us in Kangra valley. A brief breakfast stop at a nondescript village later, we were off towards the general direction of Chamba. There are two routes to Chamba, the longer one stays at lower altitudes, passes through Dalhousie, and has a broader road while the shorter route climbs the hill on which Kalatop is situated on a narrow winding road. We took the shorter one, which was quite pretty but steep and scary at times with speeding buses coming at us at blind corners. I wonder if Sandra (Bullock) was driving those damn buses.

Photo of New Delhi, Delhi, India by Harsh Vardhan

We reached Khajjiar at about 1:30 only to find the famous meadow teeming with people who had gone there to make merry. It would look beautiful when empty we thought and proceeded further towards Kalatop, in hope that we might find a room at the forest rest house there. It is so sad that the few meadows get so much attention that it ends up spoiling the beauty of the place. The same has sadly happened to Gulmarg and Sonamarg as well.It does take a good 45 minutes to reach the top from Khajjiar, but it is a gentle climb all the way with the last 4 km on a dirt track through a thick Deodar forest. The entry to the forest is maintained by the forest officials who charge a Rs. 300 for any vehicle to enter. We paid the fee, hoping that we might get a room at the FRH, and if not, we planned to just enjoy the vistas and head back to find a room at Khajjiar. Upon reaching the top, and speaking with the caretaker, we were in luck! There was one room which was not booked for the night and he mentioned that we could have it. The rest house itself is splendid being a colonial style wooden cottage with huge rooms. It has a sprawling lawn in front of the two cottages and it boasts of being engulfed in the aroma of pines and deodar trees. I’m sure the panoramic view of the Himalayas from the FRH must also be excellent, but we were unlucky as the clouds blocked our views of the peaks in the distance. The FRH’s idyllic setting is perfect for those who would wish for a quiet holiday tucked away in the forest, reading books, walking and enjoying the bounties of nature. We too dream of such lazy holidays, but those vacations will have to wait until we are a bit old, and that ain't gonna happen anytime soon. After a long drive and a hectic day with little sleep during the night, it was time to crash for a power nap after a quick lunch of Maggi. The evening was spent loitering around in the lawns and in the canteen they have in their compound, clicking some photographs in the dying light of the day. A long hectic day ended contrastingly in the serene environs of the Kalatop rest house. The next day would be all about conquering Sach pass...

Photo of Khajjiar, Himachal Pradesh, India by Harsh Vardhan

Killad was a long way away so it was imperative that we begin early. So we did, left the cottage at 7 am and began tumbling down towards Khajjiar. The meadows looked lovely early in the day with no one around. It would have been the perfect setting for breakfast, but unfortunately none of the shops had opened. We marched on towards Chamba, refuelling quickly at its outskirts and moving forward towards Tissa. A greasy breakfast of friend paranthas and ‘aloo tarkari’ in a nondescript village was the only break we took before the narrow climb towards Sach pass began. The Muslim population in the passing villages was increasing markedly and their attire and looks were quite similar to that of the gaddi people one finds in the Kashmir valley. One could sense the proximity of Kashmir to the valley we were in. The climb towards Satrundi reminded us of the Chanshal pass climb. It was similar in its flora, dirt track and a moderate grade incline. There were few people to be seen on the climb as well. Aarti and I exchanged our seats just before the Satrundi check-post since she was the only driver in the car holding a valid license. I had misplaced mine a month back and was unable to find it. The road was blocked by a truck which was punctured and thus we were forced to take a lunch break of Maggi at the only Dhaba there. The sky which was overcast till now suddenly started to spew droplets of rain. Looking up, we could see a shower of white over the mountain above us, right where Sach pass was situated! Our excitement was visible, we were about to witness the first snowfall of the season over Sach pass and the valley in general.

Photo of Killar, Himachal Pradesh, India by Harsh Vardhan

It was about 2:30 by the time we were able to leave from Satrundi towards Sach pass, a good 7.5 hours after leaving from Kalatop earlier in the day. The official at the Satrundi check post had advised us not to proceed given this rough weather and suggested it would be better to wait it out. It was difficult for us to explain that this is what Kiyang had been waiting for! Skidding and sliding over a narrow climbing road towards Sach over fresh snowfall. I wouldn’t blame him if he thought we were totally insane! Knowing it was futile for him to convince us to stop from proceeding ahead, he mentioned that two bikers have gone ahead and that we should help them if needed. There were a couple of people planning Sach on the weekend apart from us on BCMTouring and I was hoping to meet someone familiar at the top. The fresh snowfall made the climb much more interesting than it would have been otherwise. The climb from Satrundi till Sach could be described as that between Marhi and Rohtang but much narrower, and a bit steeper. I would not personally call it a pretty climb but thanks to the fresh paint of white, it was a sight to behold. The vehicles coming from Sach towards us were loaded and piled with white powdery snow. Kiyang too had begun to pile up some snow, but the fall was much heavier above. I switched to 4H mode for a short while just to be sure that unwanted slippages do not occur. Gradually as we moved up, the clouds started to clear and the worst snowfall was over. It eventually laid a very small coat of about 3 inches, but it was enough to make things around look prettier.It must have taken us an hour to climb from Satrundi all the way to the top. The pass itself is narrower than what one typically expects from such high altitude passes. It had a storage/shelter kind of a structure and a temple just above. There was a good 6 inches layer at the pass itself and there were two bikes parked just beneath the temple. A thunderbird and a pulsar. These bikers must be the ones that the check-post guy had mentioned, and they must be from BCMT I guessed. They might have stopped and took shelter and must be waiting for the snow storm to pass by. However, no one was around to respond. I went up and looked near the temple, the shelter/shade too was empty with not a soul in sight. I hollered a couple of times, shouting out: Is there anyone out there, just nod if you can hear me... No one replied. My next assumption was that these must be some crazy guys, who had parked their bikes at the pass and were still left with the energy to climb further up towards some peak to experience snowfall. We were getting late to reach Killad ourselves and so we moved on. We had hardly moved 100 m when we saw two figures with helmets walking towards us. It had to be those bikers and this is where we met Sachin (bull_bola) for the first time. He was traveling with his cousin, Himanshu, towards Killad. Theirs was the most bizarre accident I’d ever heard in my life. Sachin’s cousin had somehow managed to lose the keys to his bike at the top of Sach pass. To add to their woes, the freshly laden snow was making the bikes slip like crazy compelling Sachin to leave his bike on the pass as well. They’d planned to go down by taking a lift in a truck and haul the lost key waali bike onto a pickup the next day. Sadly, the truck on which they’d taken lift was skidding wildly on the way down towards Killad, making them disembark immediately. Ours was the next vehicle they saw. Small world, isn’t it? Anyway, we were glad to give them a lift. The climb down from Sach towards Killad has to be more difficult by quite a margin as compared to the ascent we did. It was steep, it was narrow and it was a combination of loose gravel and mud. With a touch of fresh snow, the track was a bloody disaster to put it mildly. Thanks to 4x4 mode we were cruising without breaking a sweat, but the poor fully loaded trucks were having a hard time coping with these conditions. The descent is also more barren than the ascent. One can visibly take in the transition that happens from a green Chamba towards a barren Lahaul. These sudden transitions over passes have never failed to amaze me, whether it be that at Rohtang or this one at Sach. It took us a good 2.5 hours to get down from Sach all the way to the bridge over Chandrabhaga. The only bridge between Chamba and Lahaul, quite strategic if you ask me. Travel time was well spent taking in the vistas around us, negotiating a mixture of wet mud and gravel over steep inclines and chatting. There have not been many occasions when fellow travelers have joined us in the cabin of Kiyang for a drive. More often than not, Kiyang finds on its back seat locals asking for lifts, so this was a different experience, and a nice one at that. Himanshu was more or less quiet as he was yet to recover from the shock of Sach pass and the bitter cold. I don’t think he was aware of the treacherous journey he was about to delve into. Sachin is one of the few travellers I envy in terms of dropping everything and going off on a holiday. It has been 4 months since our Sach pass trip and we've managed only a 4 day ride to Rishikesh and a weekend ride to Lansdowne whereas Mr. Gupta has managed quite a few, the latest one being a skiing 2 weeks bloody vacation in Gulmarg, grrrrr... Sachin had shared with us that the primary reason for him to shift to Delhi was to travel more and I see him living up to the promise he had made to himself. Our ordeal was not over yet, what we'd hope hoped for was to crash into a hotel as soon we touched Killad and rest. However, fate had decided to make us work hard in order to achieve that. It was 7:30 by the clock when we entered Killad, it was dark and it was raining cats and dogs. The village wore a deserted look already, but then most villages in the high Himalayas do sleep early. It was pretty cold too, but thanks to the fully operational heater we were quite comfortable inside the car. Our first task was to search for a room and we headed straight into the direction of the PWD rest house. Upon reaching there, we were informed by the caretaker that a senior minister of the HP govt was visiting the day after and he could not possibly give us two rooms. However, he had one room available. For Aarti and me, it was plain and simple decision - give the room to the two boys, as they had to fetch their bikes the next day and had to stay at Killad, while we move further ahead to Chery. However, Sachin would have none of it. He insisted that we take the room and that he and his cousin would find accommodation at one of the hotels in the village. Sachin, if you are reading this, thanks a lot buddy, we were too tired to drive off to Chery. Honestly . We quickly buzzed off to the village to grab some food, while Sachin searched for a hotel. All of the hotels were jam packed with visitors from out of town ‘in honour’ of the visiting dignitary. We decided to plead with the PWD guy again after dinner. Plead he did, Sachin, and pleaded quite nicely, because the next thing we know is that the caretaker had a change of heart and relented to give Sachin and his cousin a room for the night. It was well past 10 pm when we hit the sack. It had been a long day and a well deserved sleep was in order.

Photo of Sach Pass 4390m, Gahar Dunei, Himachal Pradesh, India by Harsh Vardhan

We couldn't have slept in late the next day. It was part of the deal with the caretaker that we would relinquish control over the room as soon as possible the next morning so that arrangements could be made for the ‘honorable’ dignitary. We were up and about by 8:30 and then went down to the market to have a quick but not very tasty breakfast of paranthas and omlettes. It was then time to bid adieu to Sachin and Himanshu and we wished them luck in fetching their bikes back. They had managed to hire a 4x4 Bolero pickup for the task for what seemed to be a reasonable amount of money. We said our goodbyes also to Killad, and were off for our next destination, Udaipur. A quick word on the PWD rest house at Killad. It was simply awesome. The room was super clean and the bathroom too was spic and span. I mean I don't care about cleanliness too much, but getting a ‘Code A’ approval from Aarti on the first glance really tells you something about the level of cleanliness. In the morning, we also got to know that our room had the most wonderful view of the ranges beyond. The sky was clear and the morning soon made it all look even more heavenly. All this at a throwaway price of Rs. 200 a night! The road condition from Killad to Udaipur is horrible to put it mildly. It is dusty, has loose rocks, it ascends and descends randomly, and is of course bumpy. The vistas, although beautiful, are repetitive if you know what I mean. The valley being narrow repeats itself one mountain after the other. It took us about 5 hours to do the stretch (minus the lunch break at Tindi), but it felt a lot more than that. It reminded me of the Zanskar stretch a lot, but was probably worse. At least in Zanskar it was not loose gravel and sand and it is surely not repetitive. Being impressed by the facilities of the PWD rest house at Killad, we thought of giving the one at Udaipur a try. It was not as pretty as the one in Killad and not half as clean but it was clean enough for Aarti to compromise. The price, being Rs. 200 a night, is a steal though. I initially suspected that the money goes into the caretaker’s pocket, but my suspicion was put to rest when I was made to sign for the room. Non corrupt government employees at any level are surprising, maybe Anna has done his magic. Having secured a roof over our heads for the night, we pushed off in the direction of Trilokinath temple. This is one of the few temples, maybe the only one, which is worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus alike. One can find a very peculiar combination of religious artifacts at the temple. For example, we saw a flag with ‘Om’ written on it tied alongside a prayer flag and a mani stone which had both Tibetan and Hindu inscriptions. Such religious bonhomie is a rare sight, maybe the rest of the country should learn from temples such as these. The village itself has nothing else to boast of. Being on the other side of the river, it does boast of views of peaks just above Udaipur. We were unlucky to have witnessed a cloudy evening though. It was still drizzling when we sat down for a cup of hot tea and maggi at one of the dhabas in the village. It felt nice, warm and fulfilling. With the sun setting, we rushed back to Udaipur for a quiet dinner at a local dhaba with some fine cognac to beat the cold. After thanking our hosts for the meal, we tucked ourselves in for an early evening. Miyar waited for us early the next day...

The Miyar valley is a lush green and wide valley north of Udaipur. The valley is low lying and pretty famous in the trekking circuit. The motorable road is mostly level and ends at the village Shikito. People normally begin their trek at Udaipur taking 5 days to reach the Miyar glacier, walking all the way along the Miyar nallah. The nallah is pretty wide and is more of a river if you ask me. For lazy people like us, the motorable road is just the boon required though. We managed to witness the beauty of the valley without having to take the challenge of a trek. We started early at 5:30 in the morning, having settled the dues with the caretaker at the guest house the night before. The road climbs northwards right in the middle of Udaipur town just after one crosses the nallah that divides the town (after if you are coming from Manali, before otherwise). It is a well marked tarred road initially, frequented by buses which ferry locals to and fro from Udaipur. To begin with, the climb is gentle and it is only after the first village that the entire valley unfolds in front of your eyes. A wide valley with all kinds of trees and plenty of agricultural land dotted with tiny hamlets is what awaits at Miyar. The valley is surrounded by peaks, many of which are white all throughout the year. And to make the picture perfect, a wide raging river (Miyar Nallah) runs through it. What made the already lovely morning even better was the sight of smoke billowing out of every house in the settlements we crossed. The track reminded us of the road between Sangla and Chitkul for some reason. It was like a walk in the park with domestic animals like horses and cows grazing here and there. Every villager we crossed was amused to see a Delhi number Safari plying on these village roads. These are parts seldom visited by tourists, barring few from the hiker community. They too are mostly westerners on their way to Zanskar. Yes, you read that right! From the point where the road ends, it is approximately a 4 day trek - 2 days up to Kang La and 2 days down to the Bardan monastery - to Zanskar. From the Bardan monastery, frequent jeeps ply to Padum, the very heart of Zanskar. But they say the trek is quite arduous, as one has to cross the Miyar glacier enroute. However, many say that the glacier is a destination by itself. We took a U-turn at the last village. The entire leg took us about 1.5 hours one way, and we were back in Udaipur around 9 am to enjoy a wonderful breakfast. A longish breakfast saw us leave Udaipur by 10 am towards Manali. The road till Tandi would be trod upon by us for the first time but beyond that the track had been measured by us umpteen times. We stopped at Tandi bridge for a brief moment, contemplating to run all the way to Leh, but our mind took over our heart and we chugged towards the refuelling station at Tandi. We were tempted yet again to do a cannonball run to Leh at the station when we saw two lamas in a Qualis on their way to Leh, but again rationale took over, and we resumed our journey to Manali. How I wish that I could be carefree enough one day to let my heart take over in such matters. We reached Koksar at about 3, just in time for a quick lunch of momos and mutton soup. We were about to leave when we met an old acquaintance, a smiling Himachali, who approached me and said hello. I too said hello being polite. He asked me if I remembered him. I was a bit embarrassed as I did not, but I still said a meek yes. I guess he understood, so he began explaining that we had given him and a bunch of his friends a lift from Bharatpur till Sarchu a couple of months back. He had recognized me or the car or Aarti or maybe all of us! We had a good laugh, after which he mentioned that he had just packed up his camp at Bharatpur because of early snowfall two days before. Fearing that he might be stuck if he shut shop any later, he had packed up and put up his equipment in a passing truck which was going to Manali. His village was a few kilometers after Manali off the Manali-Kullu road. His wife, daughter, a conductor, the driver and he himself were crunched in the cabin of the truck. He asked us if we could give a lift to his wife and daughter, mentioning that they were getting very tired in the packed truck. We, of course, agreed to his request, and the rest of the drive till Manali was spent chatting with the two women. It was quite an interesting chat and a long one at that till Manali, and we learned a lot about their life, livelihood and hardships. Of course, we too shared our lives and our hardships, if I can use the word hardships to describe our lifestyle that is. Before long we were standing at Manali, which now feels like a second home. Johnson’s lodge had already been booked for the next two nights. I freshened up quickly and spent the evening with Roberta. Aarti too tagged along. After all, who would miss out on an opportunity of eating at Il Forno when staying at Manali!

Photo of Miyar Valley Himachal Pradesh by Harsh Vardhan

Day 5 was meant to be a relaxation day, just idling about Manali and gorging on some sumptuous food. It turned out to be exactly that. We woke up late, had a lazy breakfast of pancakes in our room, and ventured out around 12 to buy some stuff from the mall road. I had a conference call to attend in the evening (yes, work beckons everywhere!) and had forgotten my headset at home, so those also had to be bought. After an hour or so of shopping, we found ourselves yet again at Il Forno, and enjoyed a late lunch of pizza and coke. My con call was at 6, and by the time we finished lunch it was already 3.30 or so, leaving us with little time to do anything. We decided to just drive to Solang Valley, hoping to get a glimpse of the tunnel work, but sadly we were stopped from going beyond Solang. We turned back, and were on the Palchan - Manali road when we spotted a red Scorpio on the side of the road with a Team BHP sticker. We instantly recognized this to be Airwolf’s (Sachin) Scorpio, whom we’d met in the Rohtang jam in July when we were on our way to Leh. He was sitting in his shop inside, and we chatted with him for half an hour or so before rushing back to Johnson’s Lodge for my con call.While Aarti read a new thriller she’d bought, I attended the con call, and got free only by 8 or so, after which we headed out for dinner. Wanting to try out a new place, we sauntered towards Old Manali. Once there, we found a cafe which looked nice, but on entering we found only foreigners in it, and all stoned. There was no food available since the cafe was shutting down the next day for winter. We looked around and found another place - Pizza Olive - and what a lovely place it was! Awesome pizzas and lovely ambience. This too was about to shut down in a day or two, and we were surprised to know that it had a branch in Goa which functions in the winter when it is peak season there and when the Manali outlet is closed. Smart huh?That was pretty much the end of our short trip to Sach pass, and the next day we just drove back to Delhi, a drive which we can now do with our eyes closed.

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Harsh Vardhan

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